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Anatomy of a Massacre

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The Netherlands explicitly rejects any suggestion that it is responsible for the terrible murder of thousands of Bosnian Muslims in 1995,” said Dutch Prime Minister Wim Kok as he announced his administration’s sudden resignation. “However, today’s decision does reflect the shared responsibility of the Netherlands for the creation of a situation in which such an event was able to occur. The international community is anonymous and cannot take responsibility. I can — and do — take that responsibility.”

Kok’s dramatic move came after a six-year investigation by the Dutch Institute for War Documentation (NIOD) into the massacre of Bosnian Muslim men in Srebrenica in July 1995. Dutch soldiers were given the task of defending the U.N. “safe haven” and protecting the Bosnian Muslims sheltering there from a Serb offensive. Instead, they allowed the Serbs to round up Muslim men and boys and kill up to 8,000, dumping their bodies in unmarked graves. The NIOD report concluded that Dutch soldiers serving with the U.N. in Bosnia had been saddled with “an impossible mission to protect an ill-defined safe area” and that the country’s political leaders sent forces to Bosnia without proper analysis of the potential consequences. Kok, who was Prime Minister at the time, had tears in his eyes as he listened to the report, presented not far from where former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic and others face war-crimes charges for the massacre. The report reopened an old wound on the Dutch national conscience. When news of the massacre first emerged back in 1995, Dutch soldiers were widely vilified. Politicians and military officers responded to growing public anger by commissioning the NIOD investigation. Ironically, the report largely exonerates the 450 Dutch soldiers stationed at Srebrenica and harshly criticizes the country’s political and military leaders. It concludes that, as far as the soldiers were concerned, the mission was ill-conceived and impossible to implement, that there was a cover-up by military chiefs and that politicians lost control of events. Lieut. General Ad van Baal was forced to step down the day after the government resigned, but Commander Ton Karremans, who was in charge of Dutch troops in Srebrenica at the time and was filmed raising a glass with war-crimes suspect and Serb General Ratko Mladic, is still a serving officer. “Dutch commanders and their troops were cowards,” says Abram de Swaan, a professor at Amsterdam University who has written extensively on Srebrenica. “By extension, the entire Dutch nation are cowards.” De Swaan’s view is still shared by many Dutch.

Mient Jan Faber, secretary-general of the Dutch Inter-Church Peace Council and a passionate campaigner for Srebrenica survivors, has talked to former Serb militiamen who told him how Dutch soldiers would offer them cups of coffee as they chatted about the situation in the enclave. He suggests the outcome would have been different if the enclave had been defended by troops of a different nationality.

While soldiers listened with relief to the NIOD report, reactions from the press and public were mixed. Many were scornful of Kok’s resignation, which came just weeks before a general election in which the current coalition is not expected to win another term. Kok had already announced in August 2001 that he is retiring from national politics next month. “The Dutch are still seeking reasons to excuse those involved for what happened,” says Faber. “But the Dutch government, the Dutch army commanders and individual Dutch soldiers are to blame for the massacre. They were there to protect those people … even if it meant losing their own lives.” Kok’s administration will continue to function as a caretaker government until a new cabinet is formed after the May 15 election. The effect of the report on the election campaign is not yet clear, although the viability of two potential prime ministerial candidates — Ad Melkert, Kok’s successor as Labor’s leader, and Hans Dijkstal, leader of the liberal VVD, both of whom were ministers in the 1995 government — has been questioned. The Dutch parliament is debating whether to launch a parliamentary inquiry, one that would involve questioning in public and under oath. Whatever parliament decides, the scar of Srebrenica will not fade from the Dutch psyche anytime soon.

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